Rina Sawayama – ‘Hold the Girl’ review: the best British pop album of the year

The genre mixology concocts big, brilliant tunes with trance, indie, ‘90s alt-rock, ‘00s soft-rock – and much more – by lacing by them with undeniable hooks

Rina Sawayama is something of a genre mixologist. Over the course of her second record ‘Hold The Girl,’ we’re witness to trance, British indie, ‘90s alt-rock, ‘00s Avril Lavigne-style soft-rock and beyond, with these wide-spanning sonics shot through with her razor-sharp musical vision. It’s a sound reflective of the way that we’re able to consume music in 2022. With streaming making it easier to listen to literally anything, we’re less guided by genre, able to have playlists that flit between garage and country at a press of a button – or in the case of the title track of Sawayama’s latest album, in one song.

This creative innovation has characterised Sawayama’s previous projects. 2017 mini-album ‘Rina’ was stuffed with shimmering hooks straight from the Britney Spears or NSYNC playbook, but they sat along grizzly, overdriven guitar riffs or woozy psych-flecked production. 2020 debut album ‘SAWAYAMA’, meanwhile, was a critically acclaimed scrapbook of nu-metal, Y2K nostalgia, R&B and ’00s pop. The genre-exploding project earned its place on handfuls of “best of 2020” lists, accelerating Sawayama down a path that’s since seen her collaborate with Elton John (they reworked Sawayama’s gorgeous ‘Chosen Family’) and appear on Lady Gaga’s 2021 remix album ‘Dawn of Chromatica’.

She settled down to start writing ‘Hold the Girl’ her ‘SAWAYAMA’ era drew to a close and  went into the process, she’s said, with the aim of writing “big songs”, something that’s evident throughout. Take ‘Frankenstein’, a hulking slab of early ‘00s indie that recalls Bloc Party’s ‘Silent Alarm’. This is perhaps unsurprising: producer Paul Epworth, who also twiddled the knobs on the original classic record, took on the production responsibilities for the trac’, even drafting in ex-Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong to contribute. It’s a colossal tune, Sawayama’s declaration that “I don’t wanna be a monster anymore / I don’t wanna be a monster” supported by a frenetic rhythm section.

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Big doesn’t necessarily mean making towering rock songs, though. The album’s lead single ‘This Hell’ is a tongue-in-cheek Shania Twain-indebted smasher that takes down homophobic views (“God hates us? Alright then  / Buckle up – at dawn, we’re riding”), shouting out icons “Britney, to Lady Di and Whitney” along the way. There are cavernous moments of industrial dance too, as on the For Those I Love-assisted ‘Holy’. The Irish producer adds moments of trance to the cut, twinkling synths met by gritty bass and ominous beats.

‘Hurricanes’, meanwhile, could have been plucked straight from an early Kelly Clarkson record and ‘Imagining’ is a sticky slab of modern garage. This genre-hopping is all anchored by Sawayama’s laser-precision melodies and hooks, which maintain a through-line on ‘Hold the Girl’, and by the distinctive lyricism. Despite creating an album of – largely high-octane – songs that are destined to shine in a live arena (Sawayama is an on-stage marvel and picked up the trophy for Best Live Act at the BandLab NME Awards 2022), there’s also an impressive level of intimacy in display here.

‘Hold the Girl’ – the sonic answer to the question: “What if ‘Music’ era Madonna went to a warehouse party…?” – was written after Sawayama had underwent therapy. “[I] had a revelation,” she’s said, “so I decided to write this song… that was the start of it. I was crying before going into the studio to write about it.” Over the bristling beats and through the earworm hooks, Sawayama smuggles in hard truths: “Sometimes I get down with guilt / For the promises I’ve broken to my younger self”.

The lyrical tour de force on the album, however, is the stunning ‘Send My Love To John’. A moving modern country tune, it was inspired by a friend who’d experienced homophobia from their own mother throughout their entire life. Out of the blue one day, when hanging up the phone, the mother ended the call with the words, “Send my love to John”, acknowledging their child’s partner for the first time. The track is written from the point of view of the parent and was created as a song for those who may not get an apology from certain people in their life.

Over plucked guitars and backed by close-knit harmonies, Sawayama delivers the tracks devastating words: “And I’m sorry for the things I’ve done / A misguide love / To my only son / Trying to protect you, but I guess I was wrong / So, send my love to John”. It’s a hugely affecting song, and a demonstration of the power that quiet moments can bear.

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While ‘Hold the Girl’ is filled with often contrasting sounds, it’s rooted by moments such as these. Genres may come and go, but Sawayama’s second album is defined by her ability to fashion each of these sounds into big, brilliant pop songs. The best British pop album of the year.

Details

Release date: September 16

Record label: Dirty Hit

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